Ayesha Bibi and Irshad Bibi, who worked teaching handicrafts, were breadwinners for their family. Earlier this week the sisters were killed by gunmen in a former Pakistani tribal area where militancy is once more on the rise.
Their brother Javed Khan’s voice was hoarse with grief as he told the BBC what happened.
“We loved them. They brought hope and joy to our family. They left happily on Monday morning but later in the day we received their mutilated bodies.”
Ayesha was married with a four-month-old baby girl. Irshad was unmarried.
The attack took place in broad daylight in the village of Ipi near Mir Ali, one of the main towns in North Waziristan near the border with Afghanistan.
The two sisters were among four women at an empowerment project who were shot dead by masked men as they were driving through the village. A fifth female activist survived unhurt, while the male driver of the van who took them to the village was injured.
The attack has raised concerns about rising violence in an area that used to be the hub of an Islamist insurgency which killed thousands.
In conservative Pashtun society, especially in remote rural areas, women’s photos are never displayed in front of strangers, much less shared publicly, so there are no pictures of the women when they were alive to illustrate this article.
What happened on the day of the killings?
The women set off to give vocational training to housewives under a project jointly run by a Western-funded NGO and a local institute.
The day had started as usual, Javed Khan says, with both his sisters offering morning prayers, and preparing breakfast for the whole family. Soon afterwards their van arrived to drive them to Ipi, some 50km (30 miles) to the west.
The family lives on the outskirts of the city of Bannu, gateway to Pakistan’s former tribal areas.
Some hours later news arrived that the van had had an accident. So Javed and his father immediately set off for Mir Ali. On the way, they heard the van had come under fire.
“We lost our nerve then. It’s a one-hour drive to Mir Ali – but that morning the travel time seemed to stretch into eternity,” Javed says.
“We used to be happy. My sisters brought a breath of fresh air to our family. This incident has plunged us all into shock. My siblings and cousins just can’t hold back their tears.”
Six of Ayesha and Irshad’s young nieces and nephews were born with a speech and hearing disorder so the family uses sign language to communicate with them.
As well as coping with loss, making ends meet will now be harder for the family, without the money Ayesha and Irshad brought in. Their father makes hand carts, while the other men in the family work as labourers.
What were the women working on?
All five women who went to Ipi village on the day of the attack had trained in stitching and embroidery and to be beauticians, having been awarded diplomas at a government-run institute in Bannu.
They had been chosen for the project from a list of 22 graduates provided by the institute in response to a request from a Peshawar-based NGO called Sabawon.
With funding from a German charity, Sabawon was working with a local partner in Bannu to train 140 homemakers in the Mir Ali region in various fields, including bridal make-up, tailoring and machine embroidery.
The project was for 48 days, and the volunteers were to receive 1,000 rupees (about $6.30; £4.50) a day, in addition to being taken to and from work.
The women were killed two days before the project was due to end on 24 February.
Who killed them?
No group has said it carried out the attack, but few doubt it was the work of extremists.
Islamist militants in the area have long targeted women for going to work or getting an education. The Pakistani Taliban shot and wounded teenage campaigner Malala Yousafzai in another part of the country’s north-west under their control in 2012.
Around Mir Ali, pamphlets signed “Shura North Waziristan” have again been circulating, warning people not to work with NGOs or government-run polio vaccination teams.
This week, militants issued a statement threatening to target government and non-government organisations they accuse of promoting “immorality”, along with anyone providing them with accommodation or transport.
On Tuesday, the military claimed to have killed a local militant commander Hasan Sajna, who it said was behind the Ipi attack. In a statement, the military said he had been involved in “IED attacks, kidnapping for ransom, target killings, extortion [and] recruiting terrorists”.
Local police fear more attacks and have issued a 12-point advisory to the general public, asking them, among other things, to restrict unnecessary movements, avoid gatherings, keep changing travel times and routes and stay away from people they can’t identify.
Why is militancy on the rise again?
The army declared the entire border region with Afghanistan “militant-free” after a wide ranging operation against the Pakistani Taliban and other insurgents in 2014.
The violence, which had forced tens of thousands of people to flee, fell dramatically.
But militant activity resumed in the border region during 2018, coinciding with the rise of a non-violent nationalist movement, the PTM, which campaigns for human rights for Pashtuns.
And over the past year violence has been on the rise.
At least seven incidents of target killings have been reported from North Waziristan this year. About 50 such killings were reported during 2020. In addition there have been dozens of bomb blasts and attacks on security forces, as well as military operations against militants.
Some observers believe that militant groups are regrouping on the Pakistani side of the border as the US tries to extricate itself from the war in Afghanistan.
source : bbc news